In fugitive slave narratives of the nineteenth century, and continuing in neo-fugitive works like Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower, freedom requires migration north on foot, master and his minions often in hot pursuit, as in the story of Harriet Tubman. It also involves extrication out from under the master’s religion, imposed over the course of the slave’s upbringing. Divinity has to be understood and believed in by the slave as something other than the wretched white tyrant who runs the farm. This understanding emerges surreptitiously, through what Fred Moten calls “fugitive study.”
How might we characterize Frederick Douglass’s views regarding religion? Douglass tries to forestall misunderstanding about his views in the appendix to his autobiography. He doesn’t want his readers to suppose him “an opponent of all religion” (107). “What I have said respecting and against religion,” he writes, “I mean strictly to apply to the slaveholding religion of this land, and with no possible reference to Christianity proper; for, between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference — so wide, that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy, is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked. […]. I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land” (107). Why is religion the terrain of appeal here at book’s end? Religion has been a tool of indoctrination, a violently imposed ideology, a “crown of thorns”-style cognitive map and/or map of the cosmos imposed upon slaves. Douglass shows that the crown can be seized and repurposed. The slave arrives into Logos, reclaims “Scripture,” and sits in judgment upon the master. Douglass’s religious views also manifest in his several attestations about “divine providence,” and his claims regarding the latter’s influence over key events in the course of his narrative.
“Chapter XI,” the final chapter of Douglass’s Narrative but for a brief appendix, is where the author describes how he “planned and finally succeeded in making” his escape from slavery (94). How does Douglass escape, and what role does literacy play in his plan? Does he, in effect, write his way to freedom? Or is writing but a small part? One arrives to the chapter excited to read further. But Douglass tells us immediately that he’ll have to withhold some of the facts of the escape. Too much of the particular, and others might come to harm. Because of slavery’s persistence as a system, he must deprive himself of the pleasure to speak freely the facts of the matter; otherwise, he would run the hazard of closing doors of use to those still enslaved. Means of flight must be kept secret. At most, no more than hinted at. Of the slaveholder, from whom knowledge of this sort must be kept, Douglass says, “Let him be left to feel his way in the dark; let darkness commensurate with his crime hover over him” (95).
Octavia E. Butler’s inclusion of a neo-slave narrative at the heart of her book Parable of the Talents leads me to Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave. A butterfly greets me at my window as I read, then floats off on its way. In a children’s book, we might follow the butterfly. But when the baby naps, we must reckon with Douglass. Born into slavery, he becomes a fugitive at twenty. Seven years later, in 1845, he authors his narrative.
At a desk covered in objects — stacks of papers and books; horizontal arrays of napkins, paper clips, highlighters markers and pens — I sit and work: teach, meet, read, write, converse with students. Around and behind me, dense stacks of books and records, artifacts that store and transmit stories and histories, recordings of events, theories, philosophies. From these, I build my teachings, dialogical investigations of life through study of literature. The America revealed in this literature is a place filled with stories of injustice and resistance. Conquest, slavery, wage slavery. And like a thread run through it, the revolution, the ongoing one, the perennial one, the fights for freedom, equality, love among all persons and joy to the world. The works we read and discuss implicate us — as victims, as perpetrators, oftentimes as both — in a violent, fascist, capitalist-imperialist, patriarchal settler-colonialist system of domination — a system radically at odds with the future integrity of Earth as biosphere.